Abu Dhabi engineer Mubashir Niaz drowned as he launched his charity’s latest project. James Doran reports on a man who was dedicated to providing clean water, schools and health care for poverty-ridden parts of his home country.
A cruel fate for a charity stalwart from UAE
The white waters of the Jagraan Nala river, in the Kashmiri region of north Pakistan, rage and seethe with terrifying ferocity.
To the locals the Jagraan Nala is no more than a mountain stream, but such nonchalance belies the deadly currents that overwhelm everything in their path. Submerged trees, giant glacial boulders and, after the rains, even whole villages have been swept away by their awesome power.
Mubashir Niaz did not stand a chance.
The 42-year-old father of three died trying to cross the Jagraan Nala on August 31, a day that should have been one of great celebration.
Niaz had travelled to the remote mountain region from his home in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi, to open a school and break ground for another. Both projects had been made possible thanks to a charity he founded a decade ago called Heed, which was named using the initials of the four fields that occupied almost every moment of Niaz’s life, right up until the last – Health, Education, Environment and Development.
Heed was founded amid the ruin of another great tragedy in the Kashmir region, the 2005 earthquake that claimed the lives of 75,000 – lives that were hard enough to begin with.
Niaz wanted to help the region and its people rebuild, with schools, clean-water projects and health programmes at the core of his plans.
The award-winning engineer lived in Abu Dhabi for many years before setting up Heed. He worked for 16 years as an environmental and water specialist for Mott McDonald, an international engineering company, with postings in the UK and Pakistan as well as the UAE and across the Middle East.
His friends and colleagues were stunned by the news of his death. The group chairman, Keith Howells, described him as “a larger than life character”, who not only led a team of 90 staff but was a key figure behind the company’s sports and social activities – particularly the cricket team.
“His sudden departure has shocked and saddened us all,” Mr Howells wrote in a letter to staff. “He will be sorely missed by all of his colleagues.”
Niaz’s education and work experience since early adulthood seemed to be the perfect preparation for running a charity such as Heed, especially given its focus on the remote mountain region of Kashmir.
After studying as a young man in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, he moved to Britain, where he was awarded a master’s in project management from the University of Leeds. Immediately after that he studied water and environmental management at the University of Loughborough, which awarded him another master’s degree.
He volunteered for a while with Oxfam, the British overseas aid organisation, where he cut his teeth in international charity work.
But he always knew he wanted to set up his own organisation, according to his uncle, Col Javed Farooq, who helped to run Heed on the ground in Pakistan.
“He was a very bright, very jolly fellow from a very young age. I knew him all his life and I can tell you this work in Pakistan was his life’s work,” he said. “He always wanted to do this. This is what he worked towards from a young age.”
Heed, which attracts most of its funding from donations given by the Muslim community around the world, was highly successful for such a small organisation.
Niaz went to work with amazing energy to accomplish a breathtaking number of projects.
In just eight years, according to Heed, his team installed more than 60 gravity-fed water supply schemes, erected 22 cable bridges for pipe crossings and built six hand-dug wells and more than 2,000 latrines and bathing cubicles that served about 140,000 people in the Muzaffarabad area.
He built schools, shelters, set up health education schemes and much more besides. The number and scope of the projects undertaken by Heed were so many and various that it hardly seems possible such a small organisation could be responsible for them all.
Niaz was well rewarded with many accolades for his humanitarian work. Not least were the British Expertise Awards, which he received in 2007 and again this year in recognition of his outstanding individual work at Heed.
He also received awards for rehabilitation projects undertaken after the 2010 floods in Pakistan, including eight water-supply schemes in the isolated Neelum Valley.
“He was a really good guy, and he had so much energy and passion for his work in Pakistan it was truly outstanding,” said Aamer Yousaf, a friend and former colleague in Abu Dhabi.
Niaz used to travel from his home in Abu Dhabi to Pakistan about every five weeks, to monitor the many projects Heed had started in the area.
On August 30, his last trip, he arrived in Islamabad at about 10am to attend high-level meetings to work out the final details of the school opening and ground-breaking ceremonies to take place up in the mountainous region the following day.
After lunch he left with his driver for the Muree hills, stopping only to spend the night with his brother, Tariq.
He got up very early the next day for the last leg of the journey by car to Muzaffarabad, the capital city of the region and home to the Heed head office.
Here he picked up Mian Waheed, the education minister for the region, and a smart new name plate for the school they were to open in the village of Dibba in the Jagraan Neelum Valley, about five hours drive north up an unpaved mountain road.
They set off in a brand-new Toyota Viego 4x4 and reached the end of the road by about 3.30pm. Niaz asked the driver to wait with the car while he, Mr Waheed and others in their party undertook the last hour of the journey on foot.
The weather was perfect, the scenery breathtaking and, besides, Niaz loved to walk among the forested mountains in the land of his birth.
They were soon joined by a group of 20 or so locals, who had long awaited Niaz’s return to celebrate the opening of the school.
Once the ceremony was complete, Niaz, the minster and the rest of the group set off immediately for another village nearby, where they were to dig the ceremonial first shovels of earth to begin building another school.
There was a lot of excitement as they hurried along the valley path together, snapping pictures as they walked.
After 20 minutes or so, they came to a fallen tree that had been dragged across the river as a makeshift bridge and someone decided they should take a short cut.
As was his way, Niaz stood back and made sure every other member of his group crossed the bridge safely before attempting the crossing himself.
He photographed each of his colleagues traversing the water before handing the camera to a team member, who he asked to take one more to send to his family back in Abu Dhabi.
That last picture was never taken. Niaz slipped and fell into the icy waters less than a metre below as soon as he stepped on to the log. The current was so fast that he disappeared from view almost immediately and his body was only recovered two hours later.
It is a bitter irony that he drowned in the very waters he worked so hard to turn into a source of life for so many.
His wife, Rosie, learnt the terrible news when Waheed returned to the city with the body.
She is left to raise their three children, Ahmed, 15, Tahira, 13, and Mariya, 5, here in Abu Dhabi. She wrote a heartfelt letter to the principal of Al Yasmina School to excuse their absence for the start of the new school year.
“I feel extremely miserable and sad to give you the heartbreaking news that my adorable husband and a doting father breathed his last on the evening of 31st August, Saturday, after meeting a tragic incident of getting drowned in a very fast flowing river at Neelum Valley,” she wrote.
The grieving family will not be alone. Thanks to their father, they have an extended family of hundreds of thousands across the mountains in Kashmir. Mubashir Niaz will be remembered by all of them for transforming their lives for the better with Heed’s sanitation, irrigation, education and health projects.
“His work in Pakistan was so good he will be remembered here for ever,” Col Farooq said. “He gave his whole life to this.”
Donations to Heed can be made at heed-association.org